More than 160 objects, 37 crates, a convoy of seven trucks, and an air freighter and passenger plane. That’s just some of what was involved in getting the Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality exhibition from Xi’an, China’s ancient capital, to Wellington – a journey of 10,825km.

Over five weeks, three specialists from Te Papa oversaw the preparation, packing and transit of the exhibition – eight ancient warriors, two full-size horses and two replica horse-drawn chariots, along with more than 100 works of ancient Chinese art.

The team included Senior Touring Exhibition Manager Mark Kent, Objects Conservator Nirmala Balram and Paintings Conservator Tijana Cvetkovic. At the first ‘How to …’ Friends session they described the intricacies of bringing this landmark exhibition form Shaanxi Museum to Te Papa.

For more than 2,000 years, the warriors secretly guarded the tomb of Qin Shihuang, China’s First Emperor. Discovered by chance in 1974, the underground army is one of the greatest ever archaeological finds – and regarded by some as an eighth wonder of the world.

Before these precious cultural relics could be moved from Shaanxi Museum a gruelling process of condition reporting had to be carried out for each object. This involved the Te Papa and Shaanxi Museum conservators, often down on their knees, viewing, assessing and writing down the condition of each object.

They were focused on more than just the current physical condition. The Te Papa team needed to understand the life of the taonga from the beginning, their cultural importance and the life of the objects within a museum environment.

“There was a lot of intense discussion,” Nirmala said. Her highpoint was finding a signature on one of the warriors.

Each report was then prepared in Chinese and English. Tijana said bringing the reports back to New Zealand was like carrying four bottles of gin!

After inspection, the warriors were bandage wrapped like mummies to prevent any damage and create a moisture barrier. Particularly fragile parts, like the legs of the horses, were splinted with bamboo.

Once prepared, the objects were carefully packed into crates and loading began onto the trucks. The cargo was split into two consignments to spread the risk of something going wrong, one to be flown on an air freighter and the other on a passenger plane.

Appointing a specialist freight broker proved to be a key element in the operation’s success. He handled all the import and export documentation, air freight and truck bookings and getting the consignments through intensive customs checks

“He was our go-to guy to make things happen,” Mark said. Under his direction, the convoy of trucks made the 1200km journey to Shanghai with military precision.

It’s said that every time a warrior exhibition leaves Xi’an it rains, a sign that the emperor is crying to see his army go. It rained on this occasion, too, when the warriors left for Te Papa.

Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality closes on 21 April.

Anna Smith

Member, Friends of Te Papa